“I’m trying, ML,” I tell her quietly. “I’m just not sure how to fix this mess I’ve made.” My eyes sting. I blink the feeling away. If I let one tear go, a whole waterfall will gush. It might not stop.
“Maybe it doesn’t need fixing at all, Mavricky,” she replies just as softly. “Maybe it just needs nurturing.”
If only it were that easy.
I don’t respond and we both fall quiet, prepping for the day ahead. But I can’t seem to get her words out of my head.
It can’t be that easy…can it?
Small towns. They’re incestuous, some say. Lives intertwined, pasts linked, destinies already determined.
In some regards “they” are right. Not the incestuous part, of course, but there is no such thing as anonymity, even if you want it. Everybody knows everybody. People are up in your business. They gossip. Judge. They formulate opinions of who they think you are simply because they sent flowers on the day of your birth and heard “rumors” of when you lost your virginity in Harbor Park (untrue, by the way).
You can’t drive a mile down the road without waving at a dozen people you know. You can’t make a quick run for milk or eggs without bumping into a distant cousin or someone from your graduating high school class you never even liked but who will talk your ear off for thirty minutes about shit you couldn’t care less about. Your Auntie Marge has a big-ass hemorrhoid? Nice. A visual I didn’t need, but thanks for sharing.
You learn secrets and shames about your friends, neighbors, and community you never wanted to know.
And they learn yours.
My first day back in a place that generally fills me with pleasure and accomplishment was anything but comfortable today. I felt like a bug being studied under a microscope. Spread apart. Pinned down. I was sure I was the topic of gossip on every single street corner and in Big Stan’s Diner two blocks over.
But the more I recited my lies, the easier it got. With each story I told about romantic moonlit dinners or the best rum cocktail I’ve ever tasted or even the spider bites I woke with one morning, the more I began to believe that I had had the honeymoon of my dreams. With the man I’d dreamed about having it with.
That is until Samantha Humphries strolled in.
Sam, or Hamhock as she’s known in certain circles due to the shape of her nose, has always had the hots for Kael. The feeling was not mutual, but that didn’t stop Hamhock from living pretty in her little delusional world.
I’ve known Hamhock, as well as most of my fifty-nine Catholic-school classmates, since before kindergarten. But we were the furthest thing from friends. Her envy of my family’s wealth has always been a sore subject. Grants, funded by people like my father, paid for her parochial education. Her family struggled to make ends meet while mine went on exotic vacations every summer. She shopped at the Pretty Nickel, a local thrift store; I had designer clothes (which I rarely wore, for the record). In fact, she was so poor that people in town renamed pennies “Humphries” and when they drove by her house, they’d throw the copper coins in her yard. I did it once. Couldn’t sleep that night, I felt so bad.
But all of that paled in comparison to what I had that she truly wanted.
The affection and attention of Kael Shepard.
Sam’s never gotten over her feelings for Kael, and the fact that I’m now married to him probably burns her like I imagine it burns me that Killian’s married to my sister. Except in my case, Killian really does love me. So when she saw the blinding jewelry adorning my left hand, it didn’t just bring out claws, it brought out the rabid. The second her eyes fell to my hand, they hardened and I knew shit was about to get ugly.
“I’d heard you’d gone through with it, but then I told my mom it must be one of those small-town rumors. There’s no way the Maverick DeSoto I know would marry a good, honest man like Kael Shepard when she’s still in love with her sister’s husband. But I guess you did.”
I hear a gasp behind me at the same time the chatter in the bakery dies. Instantly, like a needle being pulled from a record.
“Get the fuck out,” MaryLou growls angrily. After not so gently ushering Hamhock to the door, MaryLou yells after her, “And swines aren’t welcome unless you want to be on the menu.”
When she mumbles, “Pig-nosed fat ass,” under her breath, a snicker of laughter runs through the small bistro.
“She’s just a jealous cow,” Elda Hansen, an eighty-year-old regular announces. Several others join in agreement. Elda smiles sympathetically when my eyes swing her way. I muster a weak smile back, trying to hold my head up while shame threatens to drag me down.